Adapting to any new environment, whether it is a job, a school, or a city, takes time and practice. Not only do you need to worry about meeting people. You also must learn the ins and outs of your environment’s culture–socially, historically and otherwise.
Sometimes this may be pretty similar to what you’re used to, and you find adaptation relatively easy. Other times, you may find yourself lost in a sea of unfamiliarity, wondering what you got yourself into.
No matter how comfortable I think I am some place new, I always find myself in the latter scenario at some point. It has occurred when learning the ropes as a restaurant cashier for the first time (don’t get me started) and when searching for a place to sit in the dreaded college dining hall.
I am now living in Australia for several months and have found it happening again.
Although Australia is Western and pretty similar to the US, there are many things about it that are quite the culture shock.
Some are simple, like driving on the left side of the road and not tipping at restaurants (!). Other things, like Aussie slang and relationship culture, are a little harder to get used to.
No matter how different of a place my travels take me to, I always try my best to adapt quickly and gracefully. No one wants to embarrass themselves in front of all their new peers.
Here are the best tips of picked up in my years of jobs, travel, school and other habitat changes:
One of my biggest fears is coming across as the “obnoxious American” abroad. I am sometimes ashamed of associating with my home country due to the reputation we have overseas (of being culturally incompetent/insensitive). I know this obviously isn’t true for every American, but the stereotype is there for a reason. Therefore, I am very cautious of reading others’ cues when in a different environment.
I’ll watch how people interact with one another. I’ll analyze how they carry themselves, how they eat, even sometimes how they walk. (Pacing can vary a lot from place to place).
In your home state, this can still apply. For instance, you don’t want to be too rowdy or too casual in the workplace if that’s not the sort of environment it fosters. Observe others for hints to how you should act when around them.
-Think before you speak
This is also a form of observation: but instead of analyzing others, you are analyzing yourself. I am not telling you to be overly critical or hyper self-conscious, but you should use a bit more judgment than if you were talking to your partner or best friend.
When in a new place, you don’t yet know where your boundaries lie with others. You also don’t know how sensitive they are to subjects that you might overlook. It’s always a good idea to tread with caution in your first few interactions with someone new. Try to determine what’s appropriate and what might be considered offensive. And when in doubt–you probably shouldn’t say it.
-But don’t be afraid to be yourself
Most people can see insincerity from a mile away–and this applies across cultures. I have fallen prey to putting on a guise when around new people–only to come across as “snobby” or “aloof.” I am never trying to be this way, but it is a result of my shyness and inability to come out of my shell.
Of course, everyone has times when they are more guarded or uncomfortable. But it is important to move past this for the sake of your relationship with others. Those who make you nervous–your new bosses, professors, or potential friends/romantic partners–will appreciate your honesty when you share who you really are.
On that note, it is absolutely vital to run toward what scares you. This is an essential part of effective assimilation into your new environment. Don’t make dumb, rash decisions that you will regret, but do push beyond your comfort zone in the times when you know it’s good for you. (Trust me, you’ll know the difference).
Asking your new colleague out for lunch is one of those times. So is daring to go to an event alone or embracing a cuisine that you have never tried–especially if it is being offered by someone else. Discomfort is all part of the process. You’ll find that the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the quicker you’ll be able to throw yourself into whatever other cultural (or sub-cultural) change comes your way.
-Do your research
This is one of my favorites, because I am a research junkie (maybe to a fault). Before doing anything, I spend ages surfing the web finding out anything and everything about it. It may not be great for my eyesight, but it has served me well thus far because I always feel relatively prepared when entering a new situation.
Research can help you learn the dress guidelines at your new job, resources for students on your school campus, cultural customs of your travel destination, lesser-known hangout spots in the town you’re moving to, etc. It pays to do some work ahead of time. You appear more cultured, competent and sensitive to others, plus you have something to bring up in when the conversation lulls!
Use your research knowledge to ask questions or (appropriately) make suggestions to your new group of peers–it will serve you and your relationships well.
Now it’s your turn- What do you do to make your transitions to new environments easier?
Related: How to Deal with Social Anxiety
What I Learned from Traveling with a Friend
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Photo: 16:9clue via Flickr